Terminal Leave is the first book by the Atlanta poet, F.S. Blake. This collection, published by Finishing Line Press, is the culmination of what started “as a bet with my sister” and ended up a successful look at the beauty of the natural world and how man’s worst calamities move through the landscape and then disappear with time. He writes about modern, mechanized warfare in an ancient place. He writes about regret and anger and confusion and finally, surrender to life and learning to enjoy the lives we have left.
A former Army officer, Blake captures with dead honesty the slog of patrolling to find an enemy that fights only when he wants to and the moments of solace that soldiers find when surrounded by a war on all fronts. Many of the twenty-one poems take place in Iraq, but several occur after his time in the war as Blake, now a veteran, looks at the natural world with a slightly shaded lens. Several of the poems are new, and several have been previously published including the Pushcart nominee, “fob.”
In “I Didn’t Keep a Diary” Blake writes about the invasion of Iraq in a crisp style that mirrors the precision of the invasion. He speaks of fighting a real army and moving quickly through the desert launching “missiles at tanks” and following the manual. This adherence to a war manual is juxtaposed with his own lack of openness and ability to write down anything they did in the first weeks of the war. The manual represents not only rigidness, but also a secure place with clearly defined rules that allows him to act more and reflect less. Blake only hints at the enemy and its fluidity once the beginning of the war is over. He implies that it was only when the his war was over that he was able to see it clearly and write about it in an open way.
Blake references Babylon and Mesopotamia several times throughout the book. He uses the vast history of humanity in the region as a foil against the mechanization of war. He mentions the Iraqi orchards several times throughout the book. They serve as a reminder that the earth barely notices what its inhabitants are doing. In “Terminal Leave” he talks of radios “clicking and popping” while taking “mechanized journeys” through ancient orchards. In Blake’s Iraq, his unit’s foreignness is in stark contrast to the Iraqis. In his world, the Americans are always out of place unless within the walls long enough to smoke a cigar at the end of the day. And even then, the characters are mostly concerned with staying alive long enough to see another sunset.
Several of Blake’s poems don’t mention the war at all. It seems they take place after he is home and safe. He extols the virtue of the natural world. In “Footing,” the narrator goes to the ocean and kicks his feet in the sand. The water rushes past his legs just as he has surrendered enough to allow life to speed by. In another poem, “One Lone Soul,” the narrator is floating in the sea, separate from those on shore, in tune with the ocean pulling him out to the deep, or to a calm death, or at least calm enough to let the people on shore watch him go.
Blake’s cleanest poem doesn’t take place in Iraq at all, but back in the states in an autumn some years after the war. “Shuttered” is a sparse poem worshiping the death of summer and the fine quality in enjoying those last few days in the sun as, “shadows were longer and thinner than their July cousins.” It could have been written by a poet who hadn’t been to war, but in context we understand the added pleasure in fleeting moments spent enjoying “sunlight beneath our fleeces” at the water’s edge in late October.
Much of Blake’s work in Terminal Leave is like a picture book. Each poem a different set of Polaroids stuffed under the clear, plastic sheets in an old album. Blake writes about war, and without really mentioning it, combat itself. It’s almost impossible to describe that part of human existence without being maudlin, or lying, or copying things you’ve heard or already seen. Wisely, Blake tells us what it is like as opposed to what happened. From the last poem, “Spear:” “to observe war is like a pair of scissors cutting a paper clean/to those in the spot the image is magnified/not a clean cut/but actually tiny fibrous strands being ripped apart/they see and live each decision.”
Terminal Leave is available now at https://www.